I never understand why cities ignore the obvious free marketing that airports provide. Some places, Austin comes to mind and even my native San Diego, make some effort to brand the city as soon as you arrive. This seems smart to me. When I got off the plane in Detroit, I could have been standing in the non-descript, sterile, industrialized shell of any airport in the country. It’s not that I wanted billboards plastered all over the walls as I made my way to baggage claim. But why wouldn’t you want people to get a sense of what your city is about and what you want to be known for? An airport ought to give a glimpse into the soul of the place your entering. Despite this shortcoming, Detroit had much to offer, so let’s get into it.
Nevertheless, we are giving the city a run for its money and the first stop on our trip was a highly recommended spot called Slow’s BBQ.
It seemed odd to me that one of the first recommendations I received – from a few unrelated sources – was for a barbecue joint. Truth be told, I couldn’t have told you whether Detroit was known for any particular type of cuisine before embarking on this little getaway. It’s easy to identify the south with soul food, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Texas with barbecue, or the southwest with Mexican food. For Detroit, a city that seems to be one constant stream of immigrants, it really doesn’t seem like any particular style of food is the standard bearer for the city.
The door to Slow’s is at the same time both massive and in your face and deceptively hidden. I was fortunate to see a woman in front of me struggle to find it, so I knew where I was going when I walked up. My friends had no such luck and actually circled the block before realizing they’d passed the front door. I don’t know if we aren’t observant or the door isn’t great, but something ought to give. Just keep that in mind if you are paying a visit, is all I’m saying.
As for the food, the two of us who’d flown in from San Diego were pretty hungry after a long flight with a connection and your typical morning bagel/coffee at the airport. We spent a lot of time getting the run down from our server, a pleasant, hearty woman with brown skin, blond curly shoulder-length hair and an easy smile. She politely and pretty comprehensively let us know about the local and regional beer on tap and, in not so helpful fashion, proceeded to tell us that “everything” on the menu was good. Fortunately, she owned how unhelpful that guidance was and somehow that made it easier to just take and roll with it. Having arrived with a pretty substantial bit of hunger, I decided it was time to put in a fair amount of work on this menu.
Let’s not waste any time. Yes, I ordered ribs. They were babyback ribs (click here if you’ve ever wondered what the “babyback” in babyback ribs actually is). I’m not going to launch into some hyperbolic and gleeful rant about how delicious they were. It’s not because they weren’t good, they were. I can tell you that I enjoyed the smokiness and that the flavor that comes from slow-cooking a properly seasoned piece of meat was present. In fact, I’d say that the ribs really had a nice bit of complexity for a food that’s basically just a few items. But the reason I can’t go too overboard over the whole rib description thing is that there’s a finite number of ways to describe this food and several people do it way better than I do. I can tell you that this place was worth the stop and that the best thing I ate was the brisket
If I were vacationing in Detroit or popping in for a work meeting, I would absolutely go back here.
I did like that Slow’s was in the heart of an historic neighborhood called Corktown, where our Airbnb was situated a block off Michigan Avenue. I don’t want to make everything about why Airbnb is a good thing, but honestly what are the chances that we visit any of the neighborhood places we did without it? Pretty slim. The point is that Airbnb and sites like it actually facilitate a part of the economy that is easier for everyday people to be a part of. A “mom and pop” shop has a low barrier to entry as compared to an expensive restaurant or store in the urban center. The reason to have policies supportive of this medium is that although it isn’t generating new expenditures (the money would still be spent in the city), it is spreading those expenditures in a way that is healthy for more of the community. I digress.
I also liked that the ambient noise wasn’t so loud that we had to raise our voices to hear each other but still there was enough bustle to make it feel like the place had a pulse. We were on vacation, and so the company was more important than the food in this journey, but good food is always a nice backdrop.
As for Corktown, it is the oldest neighborhood in the city, see.
What I found fascinating every time we crossed Michigan Avenue to get from our place to the handful of cool places that had popped up over the last few years is how massive and empty the roadway was. We crossed several times, at all hours of the day and night, and it always felt as though the 100 feet of width was built for a wave of car traffic that never materialized. Or, worse perhaps for the Detroit faithful, that it had once come but long since abandoned the city for greener pastures. I’ll write more about this aspect of Detroit separately, but it struck me as we left Slow’s and I thought I’d share.
Not wanting to go too crazy on our first evening in the city, we decided to stay close to home and explore Michigan Avenue a bit. Raven (the charming server from Slow’s) mentioned a local distillery – the first of its kind in Detroit – that was just up the road so we set out for a walk. On the way there, we stumbled across something that has become a bit of a thing in Detroit. Our first foray into ruin porn.
Ruin porn: The Detroit Train Station
Less than two blocks from our first meal, we came upon a hulking mass of concrete at least 15 stories high. Normally, a building of this grand scale on the side of a major artery would be alive with people coming and going at the tail end of a busy work day. In this case, the Detroit train station sat empty and fenced off, a sad, decaying shell of what it must have been when built. Against a back drop of blue and gray skies, green grass and a few trees, the building actually looked in real life like someone had used an Instagram filter to gray out the building and convey an extra sense of despair.
I wondered if the building was a boondoggle, built with the excesses of a government that has repeatedly failed to think long term about its public investments. A friend in our group whipped out his phone for some quick research and determined that this wasn’t a bad choice, just bad timing. As it turns out, the Detroit train station was supposed to be the epitome of smart growth. They’d built the station and a huge hotel just outside of downtown, creating an easy opportunity for out of town guests to spend some time without ever needing a car. I wonder, of course, if a city that had been historically awash in car company money could possibly see past that conflict and build a community for people. We spent the next few days asking these questions and many others about the city, but as this was a vacation after all, it was time to snap back into reality with a trip to Two James.
I’m not a huge lover of distilled spirits. Well, maybe that’s not 100% true. Okay, that’s complete non-sense. I find small amounts of whiskey and mescal delicious. So when the opportunity to try homegrown options moments from the train station ruins I was happy to jump in.
Two James was a converted taxicab repair shop and a couple other things during its lifespan before becoming a playground to tourists and locals looking for something unique to end the day. This was the first of many cleverly adapted buildings we happened across during our stay in Detroit. The upside of such well-made buildings is that they stick around for awhile. The downside is that if no one does to the building what Two James did here, you get ruins. Lots of them. But that’s a story for another day.
The other fun thing about Two James is that we happened to strike up a conversation with Stephen (pronounced like Curry, not Hawking), a west side Detroit born and raised 50-something , tall African American man sitting by himself at the bar. Stephen told us about the strong attachment Detroiters have to their particular geographical section of the city – divided by Woodlawn Avenue into east and west. One of the bartenders chimed in when asked about why people had such strong allegiances based on something that seemed so arbitrary. Woodlawn, he explained, was the first paved road in Detroit. I have to imagine that, more than the paving, some psychological or physical barrier must have also caused generations of Detroiters to choose their allegiance to a pocket of the city over something less arbitrary. Don’t get me wrong, many communities carve out identified based in part on geography. There’s nothing wrong with that. The strange part here is that we aren’t talking about small neighborhoods in which it is at least theoretically possible to share a community identity. The west and east sides of Detroit are quite large and quite diverse within themselves. I didn’t get a clear resolution of this issue.
Our first day in Detroit rounded out with a late trip to a bowling alley. When in Rome, and all that. The bowling alley was a bit more upscale than I thought possible. I did manage to get one shot of the lanes.
At this point, I’d say our examination of “tha D” was off to a solid start. I was most interested in the upcoming bike adventures, the trip to the Heidelberg Project, the varied vehicles for economic development the city (and more than a few private funders) had been deploying, and of course, figuring out what Detroit food was all about. The bowling alley was a nice transition between something that feels pretty classically midwestern in nature and a distinct step into “new Detroit” with the facelift the city was in the slow process of receiving. Lots to think about in Detroit. Thanks for stopping by! Return to Four Days in Detroit index.